Meiler: Niagara on to something with Paulus

Mike Meiler

Save for that blip in late October, Niagara's first year post Chris Casey is going about as well as could be expected.

OK, so that "blip" felt meteoric at the time. Patrick Beilein, the prized young coach hired by NU to replace Casey, shockingly resigned, leaving the future of the once-proud program again in doubt.

In stepped Greg Paulus, who early on looks like everything Niagara hoped Beilein could have been.

On name alone, Niagara fans probably would've accepted Paulus, the former Duke guard and Syracuse quarterback, as Casey's original replacement. The 33-year-old's career prior to Niagara had its ups and downs, with six promising seasons on the Ohio State bench dampened by one-year stops at Louisville and George Washington. He applied for Beilein's former job as head coach of Division II Le Moyne, but the Dolphins elected to go elsewhere.

His initial hiring at Niagara was met with excitement, and rightfully so. Someone tutored by Mike Krzyzewski and Thad Matta would normally be out of the Purple Eagles' reach.

When Beilein stepped down, Paulus was the logical replacement, the most-experienced on a staff of a assistants in their early 30s. Still, there was reason to worry a guy passed up by a D-2 program could step in as a D-1 head coach.

People familiar with the program who had met Paulus were optimistic. Many had the same sentiment: If Beilein's lone contribution to Niagara was Greg Paulus, that might be OK.

So far, they've been right.

Yes, Niagara is 3-10. But it would've taken a minor miracle for the Purple Eagles to be any better. They played only two of 11 non-conference games at home. Beilein's short-year recruiting class has shown some promise, particularly in freshmen Noah Waterman and Nick MacDonald, but Niagara's top four scorers, top three rebounders and top four players in usage rate are all Casey holdovers. He did nothing to address a lack of size up front.

Still, it's not hard to see the positives. Paulus team — recruited by two other coaches and having spent the summer learning another coach's system — is surprisingly consistent. Even in losses, the Purple Eagles have posted a positive assist-to-turnover ratio in eight straight games. Their current turnover margin, plus-3.2, is twice as good as any posted since Joe Mihalich's final season, 2012-13.

Five times over his first two Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference games Paulus called timeout ahead of an offensive possession. Niagara went 3 for 5, twice hitting 3-pointers.

Rebounding has been a disaster any time Greg Kuakumensah leaves the game. Shooting has been hit or miss, though it was much better last weekend in what were only Niagara's third and fourth home games of the season. The team has only one player, James Towns, who can consistently create his own shot.

Those problems will only be fixed with recruiting, and Paulus has scored high marks there as well. He got his first commitment last week from Rochester's Tah'Jae Hill, who is scoring over 30 points per game this season for Hilton High School in the always tough Section V.

Hill's coach, Troy Prince, raved about Paulus and the entire Niagara staff. Hill wasn't sure he wanted to go to Niagara, but one day of visiting changed his mind.

"I think Coach Paulus has the it factor," Prince said. "He's engaging, he's personal, he's confident but not cocky. He's fun. In the few minutes (Hill's) mom and dad came in, you felt it. Not a sales pitch, just, 'I can help him as much as he can help us.'"

Prince went on: "It was a spectacular day and I knew he was going to commit."

Hill did just that, one day after visiting. His January commitment was earlier than all but two garnered by Casey in six seasons.

Perhaps most importantly for Niagara, Hill played AAU for City Rocks in Albany, the premier program in the state this side of New York City. That Paulus is making connections there is hugely important for the next few seasons.

This season was always going to be a struggle. Paulus has preached learning, through the good and the bad.

The Purple Eagles aren't particularly talented, but they've stuck together through their head coach leaving and a tough start to the season. Their two most important players, Towns and Kuakumensah, have accepted coming off the bench. The rest of the staff — assistants Brett Ervin and Bryan Smothers and director of basketball operations Madison Hahesy — were all hired by Beilein, but all have remained engaged on game day and in practices and recruiting. They each played a part in landing Hill, according to Prince.

When Beilein left, it certainly looked like Niagara could be in for a wasted season. Paulus could have proved in over his head, and the players and assistant coaches could have set their sights to next year.

That hasn't been the case, and it's a credit to Niagara's new prized young head coach.

Respond to sports editor Mike Meiler on Twitter @mikemeiler or via email at mike.meiler@gnnewspaper.com.

 

 

 

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